Talk, Don't Target: Are Consumers Getting 'BT Savvy'?

As the conversation about consumer privacy becomes more public and everyday users become more aware of the tracking and targeting techniques marketers are using both online and offline, can this itself affect consumer behavior? After all, most behavioral targeting has gone on under the radar for years. But as the tracking becomes more sophisticated and ubiquitous, what happens when users come to understand that simply by using the Web or calling a customer service representative, they are buying into a targeting economy? Most of us know that filling in a contest entry form really is putting our names and addresses into some marketing database. But what happens when that awareness becomes a part of the online experience and users associate browsing with opting into being marketed to?

"They are becoming more conscious of behavioral targeting," claims Mike Fisher, senior vice president of sales & marketing for Alterian, which has a suite of software that analyzes consumer data of all kinds both online and offline. He says that in profiling consumers, it is becoming clear that people are responding defensively to the onslaught of offers, pitches and upselling that seem to occur whenever they touch a marketer. "You can see what is happening. They are interacting socially to avoid the process. They are hitting the social networks to avoid the call center. We see it in the research we have done."

Fisher advises that brands first and foremost learn to make contact with them easier and cleaner. Let Twitter be your guide, he suggests. "Consumers want to have the fast, quick interaction and get the answer they need. Best Buy is really good at that." The big-box brand has a well-tended feed @twelpforce that gives purchase advice to consumers, sometimes in seconds. No recorded pitch, no cross-sell. In fact, no "sell" at all really. Just advice. "Consumers are demanding and looking for and expect customer care to be available to them, because they don't want to be targeted and hassled," says Fisher.

Targeting, that marketers' phrase that seems to have permeated the media culture, is precisely the wrong way to look at consumers and why many are feeling alienated and wary of the process, Fisher warns. Relevance is going to become all the more important as people get overwhelmed by messages and start to tune out brands that are aiming at them as targets rather than speaking with them as people.

He recommends marketers put traditional online BT in its proper place and understand its limitations in crafting a strategy for talking with the customer. "Behavioral targeting on the Web is a slice of a very large consumer profile pie. You are only getting one piece of the consumer's interaction with that brand and business," says Fisher. "You only know the consumer at a point in time and one interaction point -- not the whole consumer."

Alterian practices a more ethnographic approach that Fisher calls descriptive anthropology. "It requires a more holistic view of that consumer," he says. You have to look at the full range of ways the person is interacting with the brand on all platforms: in-store, online, by phone. And then you have to include broader demographic information and understanding of life stages. The point is to know consumers you are "targeting" in all of their aspects so you know both the message and the tone to take.

Beyond "targeting" is a more holistic approach that establishes relevance by knowing more precisely where consumers are -- not only in their purchase decision but in their lives. "If you aren't going to understand the customer as a human being and understand the historical footprint of where they are and how they got here, you have reduced [the interaction] to a view of them from a single point in time," says Fisher. Understanding the whole consumer also means knowing which channels are most appropriate for reaching them at a given point in time.

Fisher contends that a more ethnographic understanding of the consumer is starting to matter more and more because people are watching how they are being marketed to and they are discussing it. He and Alterian spend a good deal of time monitoring how brands are being discussed online, and one of the emerging themes involves how a company talks to the consumer at many touchpoints. "If your company knows me as a human being, I will talk about it online," he says. "On the social networks people comment on how the companies are talking to them as people."

In a world of transparency, where the former black arts of marketing are now surfaced as part of the general consumer conversation, the polarity of behavioral tracking is flipped. You're not just watching consumers. Consumers are watching you watch them.

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1 comment about "Talk, Don't Target: Are Consumers Getting 'BT Savvy'?".
  1. Catherine Dwyer from Pace University , September 24, 2010 at 5:49 p.m.

    Well said Steve, it was only a matter of time before tracking would effect consumer behavior -- no one likes a pushy salesperson, and tracking is just about as pushy as you can get.